Threat Update: ISIS Returns to Coastal Libya
By Emily Estelle
The reestablishment of ISIS in Libya offsets losses in Iraq and Syria and strengthens a key regional hub that facilitates attacks in Europe and enables ISIS’s expansion into Africa.
ISIS in Libya is recovering from setbacks and establishing a zone of control in central Libya. The group is reconstituting as a military organization, albeit in a more decentralized form. It has established logistics bases and checkpoints in several locations across Sirte district. It is also reactivating latent capabilities, notably media production, and increasing its involvement in lucrative drug and fuel smuggling. ISIS militants withdrew to Libya’s remote interior after losing their stronghold in Sirte city in late 2016 but preserved key leadership and technical capabilities. ISIS will defend and expand its positions in Sirte district, which will likely include small population centers and smuggling hubs. It may also seek to return to Sirte city, particularly if the militias that currently hold the city shift focus to other conflicts.
Conflict and local grievances are enabling ISIS’s return. ISIS is exploiting the Libyan civil war by operating in the no man’s land between rival coalitions: the al Bunyan al Marsous coalition, which supports the UN-backed Government of National Accord in western Libya, and the Libyan National Army, a militia coalition that supports a rival eastern administration. ISIS has challenged both coalitions in central Libya with a series of attacks that fixed them in a defensive posture. The resultant security vacuum allows ISIS to train fighters, plan attacks, and participate in the illicit economy, as well as infiltrate or overpower vulnerable communities.
ISIS will use its revitalized Libyan branch to intensify attacks on Europe, expand its African network, and bolster its global narrative. ISIS in Libya already coordinates some of the group’s European attack networks, as evidenced by its involvement in the May 2017 Manchester Arena bombing and the presence of several external attack cells in the country. This external attack capability does not require control of a Libyan city like Sirte, but will benefit from a safe haven in northern Libya that facilitates the training and transiting of attackers. ISIS has also recruited African militants to Libya and exported expertise from Libya to African affiliates. The establishment of a more secure base of operations in central Libya will allow ISIS to increase this coordination and possibly recruit new partners on the continent. A renewed ISIS presence in Libya, and particularly a return to Sirte, would bolster the group’s narrative of resilience as it contends with the fall of its capital in Raqqa.
ISIS is on course to develop a permanent safe haven in Libya from which it will continue to threaten Europe, and ultimately the United States, in the absence of effective strategy to ensure its defeat.
Emily Estelle recently released “A Strategy for Success in Libya,” which recommends a concept of operations to secure American interests in Libya, including the defeat of ISIS and al Qaeda.
Below are the takeaways from the week:
- The Kenyan election crisis incited a struggle for control of the state that may destabilize Kenya and enable the growth of al Shabaab. Incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta began his second term after a Supreme Court ruling upheld his victory in controversial re-run elections. The crisis has inflamed ethnic rivalries. [Read a recent update on the Kenyan political crisis.]
- The Libyan civil war may escalate following the stagnation of the UN-led peace process. A consultative body based in western Libya rejected proposed amendments to the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement, citing bias in favor a rival parliament based in the east. The political deadlock coincides with heightened tensions between rival factions jockeying for control of Tripoli. Armed groups may seize the opportunity to secure their interests by force, raising the risk of violence and mass displacement in Libya’s capital and other contested areas. [Read Emily Estelle’s recent report, “A Strategy for Success in Libya.”]